On dad’s 5-year death anniversary

May 4th was my dad’s 5-year death anniversary – Star Wars Day. I find it so fitting that he died on this date, he was a huge Star Wars fan and I can trace some of my earliest memories of renting the movies on LD with him from a movie rental store in Lahore when I was a kid. He had an enviable LD movie collection, and eventually bought a deluxe, special edition Star Wars original trilogy LD set from Dubai, but we never got to watch it because our LD player in Pakistan wasn’t compatible with the format he had bought from Dubai. Ah, the 90s. We kept that collection for close to 10 years, never once watching it, and eventually sold it when we moved out of Pakistan, along with the rest of our LD movie collection (close to 50 films).

I never know what I should do when this date comes around every year. In Pakistan, a death anniversary is called a barsi, and family and friends gather together to read the Quran and pray for the soul of the departed. It’s a melodramatic event – some people cry, and others talk about fond memories they have of the deceased. There’s normally food given out to the poor, a form of zakat (charity). At the end of the day, everyone goes home and people move on with their lives. I used to dread barsis at our house, and one we observed every year was for my paternal grandfather. Now, I wish I had something like a barsi to offer up on my own dad’s death anniversary, but it’s not a ritual my family keeps anymore. I never thought I’d miss the practice of holding a barsi, but I do.

It somehow feels disrespectful to not do anything on dad’s death anniversary. The first few years after his death, I’d play his favourite songs on this date and remember the love he had for music that he passed on to me. But the last few years, I haven’t done anything for it, and neither has my family. I call my mother every year on his anniversary, and like many topics pertaining to my father, mom says the minimum necessary to have what would be considered a conversation on the subject. I think she doesn’t know how to show grief and sadness for my father, because she still hasn’t dealt with all the anger and pain she feels from him. I don’t press her to share too much because I know she misses him, even if she can’t quite get herself to admit it yet.

To be honest, I haven’t fully processed what I feel about my dad’s death either. It happened so suddenly, without warning. He also died what I consider a horrific death. He stumbled into one of his friend’s house at 4am one morning, black out drunk, after a party at another friend’s place. He was staying in the basement at that house while my parents were separated. He made his way towards the stairs, started climbing down, either tripped or lost his balance because of how drunk he was, snapped his neck and died before his body rolled down to the foot of the staircase. He was dead, and it would be a few hours before one of the children who lived there discovered his body and my family would find out when a police officer came to our house around 10am that day to inform us of what had happened. None of it seemed real.

It was my mother and brother who identified his body for the coroner – lifeless and still, lying face down on the marble floor at the end of a narrow stairway. I stayed upstairs to be with my sister, who was not even 16 at the time. But the real reason I didn’t go down was because I was scared. I saw his body lying there, and I froze. I couldn’t imagine touching him like that. I had never seen a dead body before, and I definitely didn’t expect to see my own father’s dead body like that, ever. My mother cried and my brother was there to hold her, and eventually the paramedics put him on a stretcher, covered him and took him to the hospital for an autopsy. I was away in another room with my sister through the whole thing, hoping no one would ask me to come and see what was going on. I didn’t want to be anywhere near my father like that.

I sometimes see that image of his body on the ground in my mind. It’ll pop up at random times – when I’m cooking, doing art, in the garden, driving, or reading a book. It’s a disturbing thought, and I try to push it away whenever it comes up. Because if I don’t, the full weight of how tragic and awful my father’s last moments were will hit me, and I’ll be overcome with despair. My dad may have done terrible things to me and my mother, but he didn’t deserve to die that way. He deserved a more dignified death. The only consolation in all this comes from the understanding that he wasn’t aware of what happened, and it was very quick and painless. The autopsy revealed his blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and that he couldn’t possibly have been in a conscious state of mind.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in my family who’s plagued by such thoughts. No wonder we hardly talk about my father when we’re all together. Everyone has their own form of trauma they’re sorting through, and none of us have yet reached a place of resolution where we can see my dad and his life for what it was, removed from our emotions and expectations. His untimely death, and the way in which he died definitely don’t help either. Even though it’s been 5 years since he died, the wounds left behind feel a lot more fresh. In our own ways, we’re all still grieving.

I didn’t think this road would be so long, and that it would take me years to be able to talk about these things without breaking down or crying. I’m nowhere near the end of this journey, and by some measures I’ve probably only begun to understand just what has happened in my life and the huge void my father’s death has left behind. One thing that’s become clearer over time is that I loved my father, very much. Underneath the anger and resentment I felt towards him, there was an ocean of love and longing. I’m glad I’ve been able to re-discover that love and allow myself to heal. My dad’s suffering finally came to an end when he died, and I deserve closure for my suffering too.

Wherever you are Dad, may the force be with you.